Egypt and Jordan — I arrive in Cairo just before last week’s protests begin. Traveling with a group of 38 tourists — some of whom have saved and dreamed for a lifetime to see Egypt’s treasure chest of archeological, cultural, and political history — we land unwittingly amidst the uprisings, and proceed to spend several days moving just ahead of the mounting danger.
On our first day, we walk through the museum of Coptic Christianity, then immerse ourselves in Islam, the religion of pure monotheism and 5-pillar devotion embraced by 90% of Egyptians and 1/7 of the world’s population. Strolling the grand Muhammad-Ali Mosque, viewing Cairo from the bird’s nest of Saladin Citadel above the city, and buying local trinkets at Khan el-Khaliki Bazaar, we meet with smiling faces everywhere. Our smiling guide Ahmed called himself “Mr. President Obama,” proud that his compatriots see a resemblance in him to the U.S. president.
However, by the time dusk splays across the city and our bus snakes its way back through the its urban streets, we come head to head with a human blockade of police with semiautomatics and shields. They will not allow us to cross the Nile River. The scene begins to look ominous. I stare through the bus window at the faces below and realize these men look very young and a little scared. In Egypt, 49% live below the World Bank’s measure of poverty ($2/day) and 80% live on less than $3. These guys only make minimum wage; they’re just trying to make a living. They, too, have no idea what will unfold: that they will retreat and be replaced by tens of thousands of army troops facing down a million street protestors. They, like we, cannot know that looters will overpower their authority, destroy inventory, and threaten the safety of hardworking families across Egypt. They cannot foresee that communications, banking, schools, and industry will come to a halt and their loved ones will remain essentially under house arrest for weeks, perhaps months, to come.
Meanwhile for us tourists, our savvy Egyptian guides finagle a police escort that evening across the bridge, and we walk the rest of the way to the haven of our Western hotel. Next day we — along with thousands of other tourists from Europe, Asia, and the U.S. — throng the Egyptian museum, oohing at the coins, papyrus, and scarabs downstairs and aahing at the Tutankhamen treasures and the Pharaoh mummy room upstairs. We lose contact with our families when President Hosni Mubarak shuts down the country’s Internet and attempts to limit social media. We flee Cairo, but only into Upper Egypt, to float in hot-air balloons over the Valley of the Kings. As Mohamed ElBaradei begins to rally support for the Muslim Brotherhood, we pose for photographs among the pillars of the Luxor, Hatshepsut, and Karnak Temples. Mobs kill over one hundred and harm over a thousand, and Mubarak sends in troops to protect the antiquities we have just visited. Systematically, everything shuts down — the Cairo airport, banks, stores, and schools. Finally, we begin to make our way out of the country.
We push on in our cushioned buses to the port city of Hurghada and board a small ship to head out into the Red Sea. Still following our amazing tour itinerary, we have not experienced the slightest inconvenience or danger. The contrast between our sumptuous meals and lavish accommodations and the daily struggle of our Egyptian hosts — even before this crisis — strikes me as garish, insulting, rude. Our American tour operator, Mr. Ati Jain of Cross Culture Journeys (ccjourneys.com), disagrees. “Tourism is the lifeblood of this country,” he tells me. Sure enough, the newscasts we soon retrieve via satellite on the boat confirms that tourism comprises some 25% of the GDP here and employs 2.6million of Egypt’s 80million residents.
“You have come here because you love our country,” one local tells me. “We thank you for coming here and we love you for bringing your business here.”
Ms. Sonia El Masiri an Egyptologist from Alexandria who has worked for nearly half-century in the tour business, laments the violence of a few that has undermined safety for the whole. “These hooligans are ruining the country for everyone,” she shakes her head sadly. She has just spent our last five days sharing her encyclopedia knowledge of her dearly beloved country with anyone on a tour that asks any range of questions from any perspective. Now, her husband, daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren are all huddled together in her 4th-floor Cairo apartment. As with millions of peaceful citizens, they have out of necessity set up a neighborhood watch, standing guard with kitchen knives and brooms.
Sonia and several other Egyptians I speak with tell me that they dearly wish their voices would be heard above the din of extremists and looters. All they want sounds a bit like the dream from my childhood home: peace, freedom, safety, economic security, and democracy with a small d.
Now in Jordan (with the fast-thinking Mr. Jain, who has kept us out of harm’s way but also made impeccable arrangements to see the sites of Jordan and Jerusalem in place of the pyramids and sphinx), we finally get back online but still feel ourselves hovering in the unreality of having just been in the middle of a crisis that continues and worsens after we’ve gone. Mubarak makes his public declaration that neither he nor his son will run and calls for elections to be moved up from autumn to spring, but the mobs’ fury increases that he does not immediately step down. Here in Jordan, we hear reassurance that King Abdullah’s abrupt replacement of his own cabinet this week is a positive move and reflects the Jordanian’s “semidemocratic monarchy” quick response to the wishes of her people.
In Aqaba, we change the flag on the ship from Egyptian to Jordanian, but we take our affection for the people we have just met along with us. Zuhair Dmour, our guide through Petra and Wadi Rum, talks about how deeply we all feel the effects of Egypt’s explosion — not just in the Middle East. “The whole world is becoming a small village,” he says.
And in that small village, I wonder as I continue on my privileged journey, what can we citizens do for our Egyptian neighbors?
It occurs to me as I make my way north and east into the Arab region, it’s pretty simple: I could be a better friend to Egypt. Maybe there are myriad ways to be a friend, like cooking the food or reading the history of Egypt. Like a dear old friend we’ve taken for granted for millennia, however, Egypt now needs my attention beyond that of a consumer of her legacy and beauty. With three simple steps I can easily begin.
Being in the nonprofit business, I had hoped to visit a couple of microfinance and school programs in Cairo after our tour — which of course will not happen in February 2011, as the city remains paralyzed. Still, from home I can do more to learn from and correspond with Egyptian experts working to effect social change, and offer them my moral support or donated dollars.
Second, I can listen closely to the multiplicity of voices emerging from an Egypt far too long silenced under the 30-year dictatorship of the outgoing president. I can hear, respect, and repeat the message of my new friends in the Valley of the Nile. Ahmed and Manal, Sharif and Sonia, can be amplified every time I tell someone back home about their struggles and dreams.
And finally, I can come back. As President George Bush told American citizens after the terrorist attacks or 2001 — and any survivor or violence can testify to this — the best revenge is to live well, go on, survive, and thrive. I hold the vision of an Egypt whose people’s voices get heard, an Egypt that makes its way through this muck into fair elections and then rebuilds its constitution and governance to represent one and all, in peace… and an Egypt who, more stunning now than in her antiquity, receives guests from all over the world who bring more than cash. Next time, we’ll pack a deeper understanding of our hosts. We will come back, and soon, and as friends.
Read more: Jordan, Egypt, Philanthropy, Tourism, Muslim Brotherhood, Social Change, World, Economy, Cairo, Mubarak, Obama, Travel News